Epistemography

2005-05-05

In his essay "Science Studies as Epistemography" (chapter 10 of The One Culture?), Peter Dear defines epistemography as follows:

The term "epistemography" is intended to bring some clarity to the discussion by proposing a loose grouping of the most central and characteristic kinds of work currently encompassed by the label "science studies." The grouping strategy relies on making explicit the following recognition: the field of science studies is driven by attempts to understand what science, as a human activity, actually is and has been. Epistemography is the endeavor that attempts to investigate science "in the field," as it were, asking questions such as these: What counts as scientific knowledge? How is that knowledge made and certified? In what ways is it used or valued? "Epistemography" as a term signals that descriptive focus, much like "biography" or "geography." [The suffix "-ography" should not be taken to indicate anything more specific than "description" in the widest sense; it need not imply spatial description (akin to "cartography"), for example, although it could well do so in particular cases.] It designates an enterprise centrally concerned with developing an empirical understanding of scientific knowledge, in contrast to epistemology, which is a prescriptive study of how knowledge can or should be made.

Dear's conception of epistemography provides a useful counterpoint to mine. Following Hao Wang, I am more interested in describing and mapping out what we know than in describing how we know it. Wang called the endeavor of describing what we know "phenomenography" (or, in his later writings, "phenography"), but that term has been in use within educational theory for the past thirty years or so, so we need a different term. Besides, "phenomenography" implies that we are describing appearances as opposed to realities, which betrays a kind of Platonic-Kantian distinction between appearance and reality. Perhaps the term "ontography" would be appropriate: the description of reality as opposed to the theory of being ("ontology"), but I think "epistemography" gets to the heart of what Wang intended because he was most interested in doing justice to what we know, with all that implies: what we know, what we know, and what we know.

Such a study would be broader than Dear's focus on science, since there exists much knowledge outside of the sciences (practical knowledge, social knowledge, moral knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, etc.). Such a study would also focus on mapping out and connecting what we know (similar to E.O. Wilson's concept of "consilience"), not describing sociologically, historically, or empirically how scientific endeavor functions. I don't think Dear's program is wrongheaded, I just think it's not ambitious enough. Let's aim high: nothing less than a map of everything we know about reality (including our human reality). Come to think of it, perhaps "ontography" is an even better term than "epistemography": a map of all reality (which, practically speaking, means everything we know about reality, but that is perhaps a methodological detail). Naturally the map would be drawn to a certain scale; no map provides infinite detail, else it would not be usable. The challenge is to find the right scale that will enhance our ability to navigate and explore realities both familiar and unknown, then to fill in the map with greater detail over time through an iterative process of improvement. Wang's proposal was to do this by describing certain higher-level principles that apply to multiple disciplines (e.g., "like implies like" or "equal until proven unequal", which overturns the hierarchical world of the ancients both physically and socially), but I think something akin to Wilson's program of consilience may be closer to the mark.


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